We live in the eucalyptus woods of Lake Forest in Orange County, California, solidly middle class and a place we could not afford at today’s prices. We locked in to this gracious neighborhood of family focus, great schools, varied public and private services, and healthy businesses more than 30 years ago. This past two months we cleaned the house, packed up anything worth donating, threw out barrels of useless stuff that we wondered why we’d saved. We fixed and painted, scrubbed and polished. Organized in its new beauty, showing off its books, photos, and knickknacks, the house glows. We’re ready for the holidays, for our out of town guests. This will be the first in about 15 years that both our sons and their families will be together for Thanksgiving along with extended family and friends. The bright and shining face of comfort, we’re ready to celebrate our bounty.
Nearly 200 homeless people, many of them family groups, live around the Plaza of the Flags in downtown Santa Ana, our county seat. The area bridges the Orange County Superior Court building and the public law library. Nearby is the main branch of the distinguished Santa Ana Public Library and Santa Ana City Hall. None of the campers really want to live here but they can’t afford the high county rent. The encampment is an embarrassment, a haven for filth and disease, used syringes and empty bottles and cans. For discarded and broken toys, torn sweatshirts and trash. For vermin. For excrement. It’s a dirty, scary place to walk past as I did last year on my way to serve jury duty. It’s a failure of individual responsibility and self control, of inability to delay gratification or accept consequences, of unwillingness to apply oneself to education and work ethic. It’s a total failure of parenting skills. And it’s not the image of public pride we’d like to project but the face of policy failure we can’t seem to resolve.
Some but not all of the adults work for low paying wages at jobs with inconsistent schedules. And yes, some are drug addicts, alcoholics, lowlifes and criminals – but not the children. The children are innocent and active, yearning for play, hoping for education. Like our four grandchildren. Like yours. Orange County officials are trying to clean up the encampment but if they deal with this problem by forcing these people out with no place else to go, then they simply foist the problem onto some other community. Resolution is not barricading Civic Center. It’s building temporary safe houses and long term opportunity. It’s people remembering their childhood goals and deciding to change themselves.
My family is eating lots of healthy food over this week of Thanksgiving. Everything traditional you can think of (most homemade by our many family cooks and bakers,) also sushi, pizza, and a variety of ethnic foods (most from local restaurants.) We love it all and we pick at the leftovers whenever we want a snack. Every year as part of my temple’s outreach program we collect hundreds of cans and boxes of food items to donate, along with grocery gift certificates, to help 200 low income families. Thanksgiving is one of about a dozen times during the year that we mount a formal collection – school supplies in September, clothing, books, eyeglasses, personal hygiene items, toys. Throughout the year we donate food and more food, because a meal eaten today doesn’t feed a person tomorrow. We write checks to service organizations whose mission is to help those who are ill, hungry, without homes. These low income people don’t live a few counties over. They live here in Orange County. They’re my neighbors. And yours.
We aren’t rich. We do without vacations, expensive hair care, manicures, gardeners, maid service, updates on the house, sometimes even without needed repairs. Remodeling our house is a daydream. Tickets to live theater or sporting events are out of the question. Until two months ago I drove a nineteen-year-old car but when it became dangerous, we purchased a newer used one. I don’t have to get around on a bicycle or on public transportation, and if I walk, it’s to enhance my health, not because there’s no other way. We do without luxuries, things by their definition no one needs. Our personal situation was built of hard work and bonuses of good luck. We have everything necessary for a decent life. We are rich in family, friends, and opportunities.
On Thursday when we sit with our two sons and two daughters-in-law, with our four grandchildren, and our extended family around a table graced with candles and goblets, we will say thanks for this bounty. But I will remember those whose lives are less secure, whose meal was cooked over a camp stove or eaten from greasy paper sheets while they hunkered on a cement slab in Civic Center. The crime is not that I can’t fix the problem. It’s a crime if I don’t recognize their humanity, if I call them “other,” “other” being a designation of less worth. Yesterday I donated food. Today I wrote a check. Tomorrow I will give clothing. Next month I will donate toys. What we have is not extravagant. What we have is immensely extravagant bounty. I am deeply grateful.
May you always celebrate in joy and health with your family and loved ones. One day may everyone.
Image of homeless girl courtesy of Pixabay.com